Searching for Sugar Man is a documentary film about a couple guys from Cape Town who decide to find out what happened to a musician named Sixto Rodriguez — an artist they believe to be dead. The big reveal comes about halfway through the film when they discover the artist is very much alive, and living in Detroit, completely unaware of his popularity in South Africa. Contrary to popular belief, the film isn’t necessarily about the artist himself, as much as it is about the lives of those his music affected. Unknown to Rodriguez, his 1970 album Cold Fact was a raging success halfway across the world from where he was living in relative obscurity. In fact, it was so successful that it helped spark an uprising against the inhumane apartheid system — making Rodriguez more popular than Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. What these South Africans didn’t know was that Cold Fact, and its follow-up, Coming from Reality, bombed in the U.S., leaving Rodriguez to spend the rest of his life performing hard labor to make a living and raise his daughters.
When the film won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature earlier this year, Rodriguez did not perform (or even show up) to the awards ceremony, but he was already on the Spring line-up for a performance at the Ogden Theatre in April. With two tickets in hand, I was very much looking forward to seeing this lost legend, so I was slightly disappointed when the Oscar-interest caused the show to not only sell out, but to be moved to the much larger 1stBank Center. As happy as I was that Rodriguez had achieved an overdue level of success in his own country, I couldn’t help but think I was robbed of the experience of seeing him at the Ogden. And although I still feel that way, the 7th row center seats at 1stBank turned out to be a great place to witness the return of the sugar man.
After being walked to the front of the stage (he is going blind) by his daughter, we were informed “the search is over…” Rodriguez started right into “Climb Up on My Music”. Backed by a young trio of musicians, the man who moved people to riot in South Africa stood perfectly still, with a black hat concealing his face, while his hand flew across his guitar like a butterfly in a light breeze. He was subtle and quiet — too quiet. My initial reaction was that he was too old to be on stage. This ghost-like presence continued for the first half hour of the show –through tracks such as “I Wonder”, “Inner City Blues” and “Street Boy”. Not a word spoken out of song except for a few whispered instructions to his band. It wasn’t until he freed himself from his jacket that the whole mood of the show changed.
Almost like Superman shedding his Clark Kent costume, the quiet man who had occupied the stage since 9pm turned it up about ten notches for Little Richards’ “Lucille”. He went on to give his guitar a little work-out for “Sugar Man” before showing his sense of humour by describing the song as “descriptive not prescriptive”. From there on out, he was at home in his own skin — taking the audience through his two albums, as well as a selection of covers. The silent shadow was now cracking silly jokes about cannibals and clowns, and Mickey Mouse accusing Minnie Mouse of fucking Goofy. He even made fun of himself when he needed assistance after accidentally dropping his instrument — “I just want to be treated like an ordinary legend”.
Some momentum was lost between songs as Rodriguez and the band would have short discussions among themselves, but even that was explained away with a laugh — “I’m 70 now, so I’ve got to use my senior advantage”. That senior advantage might explain the slow start to the show, but by the time the main set ended with “Forget It”, everyone forget the shy silhouette who was walked on to the stage — everyone was on their feet, cheering for the rock star that had just walked off the stage. They were still standing and cheering when he returned for “Like a Rolling Stone” — a song he performed better than I have ever heard Dylan do it in a live setting. And while his version of “I Only Have Eyes for You” felt forced and flat, it did nothing to tarnish the performance that came before.
Without the documentary, there wouldn’t have been a few thousand people at the concert on Tuesday night; but without the talent, there wouldn’t have been a documentary. Rodriguez’s day might have come 40 years after the fact, but his performance proved it didn’t come too late.
Aside from the concert itself, I want to address a couple other things before I end this post…
First, if I didn’t like Rodriguez’s music, I would not have been at the show. His albums, as well as the Searching soundtrack, have been on heavy rotation for the past year or so. His story peaked my interest, his music made me stay.
Second, even if his obscurity was exaggerated in the film, it doesn’t change the fact that this guy (who should have been as least as popular as Dylan) was completely unaware that his album was selling millions of copies in another country. Documentaries dramatize their subjects all the time, but just a little research will prove that the story of Rodriguez is an amazing one. And one listen to Cold Fact will have you shaking your head in bewilderment. The fact that that album is not a staple in every American home is tragic.
Climb Up on My Music
Only Good for Conversation
Inner City Blues
Just One of Those Things
This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues
Can’t Get Away
Sea of Heartbreak
Blue Suede Shoes
Crucify Your Mind
You’d Like To Admit
To Whom It May Concern
Rich Folks Hoax
I Think of You
Like a Rolling Stone
I Only Have Eyes for You